There is an ancient story from the early Church of a woman who visited the Desert Fathers and confessed that she was assaulted by terrible temptations, which often overwhelmed her. A holy monk asked her how long it had been since she last received Communion. She answered that it was several months since she last received the Holy Eucharist. Whereupon the monk replied, “Try not eating for several months and then return and tell me how you feel!” From that day the woman started to receive communion regularly.
The Gospel readings for the third week of Easter (15th-20th April) find their source in chapter 6 of John’s Gospel, in the verses that follow the miracle of the multiplication of the loaves and fish on a hillside close to the Sea of Galilee. In the evening, Jesus crossed to the other side of the sea and entered the synagogue at Capernaum where, the next day, he began a lengthy discourse on the bread of life: “I am the living bread which has come down from heaven. Anyone who eats this bread will live for ever; and the bread that I shall give is my flesh, for the life of the world.”
In Aramaic, instead of the term ‘body’, the word for ‘flesh’ is used, indicating the whole person. These words scandalised some of those who heard them and they said, “How could this man give us his flesh to eat”, and, further on in chapter 6, “This is intolerable language. How could anyone accept it?” Jesus drew on scripture to explain his meaning and referred to the manna that God provided in the desert, manna, which the book of Wisdom presents as the “food of angels . . . untiringly providing bread . . . containing every delight, to satisfy every taste. And the substance you gave showed your sweetness towards your children” (Wis 16:20-21). In the memory of his listeners many passages from the scriptures should have resounded in which communion with God was expressed through the image of a banquet. In the book of Proverbs we read that Wisdom prepares a banquet and invites all, “Come and eat my bread, drink the wine which I have drawn! Leave foolishness behind and you will lives, go forwards in the ways of perception” (9:5-6). This meal – manifested with bread and wine – is a symbol of the communion and intimacy that Wisdom offers to the people of Israel.
With this theme of the banquet, Jesus was gathering the scriptures and fulfilling them. He was now preparing a banquet and inviting everyone to eat and drink. The scandal arose when Jesus identified the banquet with himself, his flesh, his blood. The learned, wise and clever among his hearers who were astonished at this claim discussed what he meant by these words, and yet they did not seek an explanation from Jesus. They were certain of their own wisdom and knowledge. It was the poor and the beggars who were not afraid of asking, and doing so with persistence, because, for them, begging was a matter of life and death. Those who were satisfied with their convictions could only murmur, scoff and judge and so Jesus is even more explicit, saying: “In truth I tell you, if you do not eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Anyone who does eat my flesh and drink my blood has eternal life, and I shall raise that person up on the last day. For my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood lives in me and I live in that person.” To a Jewish audience, the literal meaning of these words “is not only repellent but offensive because Jews do not ingest the blood of an animal along with its flesh” (The Jewish Annotated New Testament, p171, OUP 2011).
With these words, Jesus offers himself as food for everyone. His vocation is to become the man who is broken, eaten, and poured. Nothing is kept back for himself; he empties himself (Greek: Kenosis), offering his entire life, his whole person, his story for us. The Eucharist, this awesome gift the Lord has left to his Church, makes our mysterious and very intimate communion with him real. Writing to the Christians in Corinth, Paul, with some force, says, “The blessing cup, which we bless, is it not a sharing in the blood of Christ; and the loaf of bread which we break, is it not a sharing in the body of Christ?” (1 Cor 10:16).
All this raises questions about the ordinary path we take to the Eucharist, assuming we are still on that path. Unfortunately, many obstacles litter it: unwelcoming communities, poorly-prepared and executed liturgies; homilies that are dull, irrelevant, and not scripturally based; issues with Church teaching and the manner in which it is expressed; or the sheer tedium of habit that deprives those who receive communion from tasting the sweetness of this tender and transcendent mystery of love. It is such a high mystery of love that we approach it unworthily; indeed, the liturgy requires us to repeat the words the centurion addressed to Jesus: “Lord I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof.” It is a truth that we easily forget that we are never worthy to receive the Lord, but it is the Lord who comes towards us, offering intimacy with him and, thereby, true intimacy with God. It is Jesus who comes close to us to the extent of becoming food and drink for us. So let us adopt the attitude of beggars, holding out our hands to receive: a beggar of love, a beggar in need of healing, a beggar needing comfort and support.
The Holy Eucharist is the essential food for the life of the pilgrim and believer; more so, it is one’s very life as Jesus himself says at the end of his discourse, “As the living Father sent me and I draw life from the Father, so whoever eats me will also draw life from me.” The Lord seems not to ask us anything else but to answer his invitation and taste the sweetness and strength of this bread that he freely and abundantly continues to give us.
What has passed our lips as food, O Lord, may we possess in purity of heart, that what has been given to us in time may be our healing for eternity. (The Roman Missal. 2010, International Commission on English in the Liturgy Corporation)
This text was originally published in the Quest Bulletin, no. 66 (Spring 2013)